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Home » SCIENCE AND NATURE » MAINE » Maine's Mount Desert Island, the War for Natural Ecology
Maine's Mount Desert Island, the War for Natural Ecology

By Alexandra Abuza | July 23, 2010

It’s been six decades since Beatrix Ferrand, the landscape gardener known for her advocacy of native plants, left Maine’s Mount Desert Island, affectionately known as MDI to many, and the island’s gardens have seen numerous incarnations.

And while the practice of ornamental gardening on the island has grown substantially sinceFarrand’s day, one aspect of the pastime has stayed the same. This is the general assumption that the well-designed landscape improves on one’s surroundings, and possibly even on nature, without qualification.

In truth, ornamental horticulture, when not paired with some understanding of science, can impact the environment very negatively, especially one such as MDI’s, where federal park designation strives to preserve roughly forty percent of the island’s natural ecology.

Farrand, of course, didn’t have access to the information we do now, or the benefit of hindsight, not even as she drew plans and began work on the extensive Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Gardens, or helped design plantings along Acadia’s carriage roads. She can’t be taken to task for the use of non-native species such as Japanese Barberry, and Lupine, plants which have in recent years been deemed highly invasive. If anything, with her customary championing of native species and her desire to work with, rather than against, the natural landscape, she was well ahead of her times. What she lacked was not an environmental conscience, but knowledge of the long-term effects of some landscaping practices.

Today, many local green industry professionals are finding themselves up against the same lack of knowledge as they try to create environmentally sustainable landscapes that are at one and the same time in keeping with their clients’ demands. As Lois Stack, Extension Specialist in Ornamental Horticulture at the University of Maine, explains, “It can be very difficult to try to tell the homeowner their goals need to be tailored if they’re to be financially and environmentally sustainable.”

In fact, finding a middle ground has proven hard for some landscaping professionals, who often feel compromised when trying to meet their clients’ expectations at the same time as executing sustainable plans. Mark Gillis, a landscape architect who grew up in Rumford, Maine, and who’s been working at the same MDI architectural firm since 1991, is one of them.

“My parents were hippies,” he explains, “so the environment’s been instilled in my brain since childhood. I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay in this profession forever, because sometimes I feel compromised, particularly on the island, where there are a lot of second homes. They want something nice, some place they can entertain, and more and more the garden’s become an extension of the house, a kind of showpiece.”

On a landscape like MDI’s, where Acadia National Park takes up roughly 47 square miles of the 108 square mile island, conscientious gardeners have many factors to consider, most of which have to do with the relative proximity of any given property on the island to the ocean and to preserved land. For example, invasive plants, two thirds of which are thought to have been brought into the state for landscaping purposes, do not have far to travel before landing in Acadia’s forests or marshes, nor, for that matter, do insects that might be brought in with horticultural plants. Purple Loosestrife, a non-native garden plant with pretty purple spikes, has invaded much of Acadia’s wetlands, and plants like Japanese Barberry are spreading rapidly in our forests, altering the habitats of native plants and animals.

Groundwater is another issue on the island. Because the landscape is surrounded by water, anything applied to the soil or to grass either stays in the soil or leaches down into the groundwater or the ocean. With an increase in area development, water tables are dropping off and there is more runoff from pesticides and fertilizers. Along the coast, wells are at risk of being infiltrated by salt water, making plantings that do not require huge amounts of irrigation essential.

On first meeting with a client, Gillis tries to have what he calls “the sustainable environment conversation”. While he tends to steer away from clients who want to use a lot of non-native plants and create “manicured landscapes” with high maintenance plant materials, he acknowledges that sometimes the need to make an income wins. In an industry where local economy and climate dictate that green professionals make the majority of their income in six months of the year, Gillis can’t be the only one who sometimes gives in to money. As he puts it, “Sometimes the local economy makes it harder for people to put their feet down, and ethics take a back seat to feeding your family.”

Still, Gillis is not so hard up that he’ll put up with anything. He mentions that even when clients are receptive to his suggestions at first, they sometimes change their minds halfway through the project, prompting him to put his foot down. He tells a story about a former client who bought a house on Schooner Head, tripling the size of the building and making plans for major landscape construction as well. “He wanted a pool and a landscape,” explains Gillis, “and he said he wanted the pool to look natural. The minute I had the pool in place, this very organic, oval pond shape, he decided he wanted an 80’x40’ lap pool with an acre of grass around it. It was really insane.”

Gillis tried to change his client’s mind, even “trying to get to him through his wife,” and did so for a couple of reasons. For one, building the pool with the grass would mean leveling a beautiful birch grove. For another, Gillis suspected, and rightly so, that the amount of irrigation “the golf course grass” required would end up draining his client’s 100’ well.

The last straw for Gillis was when the client had the landscape contractor cut down trees and bring fill into the park service easement that was next to his property, insisting the park service would never know. Because the construction permit was under his name and his reputation was at stake, Gillis was left no choice but to report the incident to the park service, an action that ended his involvement in the project. “I felt he had lied to me,” he says. “‘Yeah, yeah, we want it to be natural,” he said. Then he changed sides. I ended up quitting. The grass really pissed me off, and I’d wanted to save the trees.”

Gillis later learned his suspicion vis-à-vis the well had been correct. In irrigating the grass, the well had not only been drained, but had drawn salt water into it. “I guess I enjoyed an ‘I told you so’ moment,” he laughs. “Can I say he was short, too?”

Gillis is not the only landscape professional to feel frustrated by the need to reconcile his clients’ demands with his own environmental code of ethics. Within the industry, anecdotes like his abound, and reports of homeowners who expect egregiously impractical installations are not uncommon. One of the more recent stories to make the rounds, is that of a prominent summer resident who has decided to cover a large portion of his substantial estate with moss gardens. Having depleted their local moss source, his gardeners are now traveling as far as Orono, a good hour and a half drive from the island, to harvest large swathes of moss from the woods, which they are then transplanting on the MDI estate. There is no doubt that they are leaving large earthen holes in their wake, a fact particularly disappointing given that, with patience, it would be possible to spread spores across the property to achieve the same effect with little environmental damage. The only caveat, of course, being that the result would not be immediate as it is with a transplant.

Given scenarios like these, it’s not surprising that Lois Stack, the University of Maine Extension Specialist in Ornamental Horticulture finds it important to stress “that landscaping is both a science and an art.” The danger in gardening she suggests, is that what requires or should require a bit of knowledge is in actuality very easy. “Gardening is the number one leisure pursuit in this country, and half our population does it,” she says. “Anyone can grow from seed. Even our first graders do it. But there is definitely a body of language necessary to learn to create viable, sustainable landscapes.”

Stack is not suggesting that the creative part of landscaping be abandoned or that people should cease to be motivated by the landscapes “they see and like” when trying to come up with designs for their own garden. Rather, she urges people to retain the “design images they carry with them” but to filter them through “botany and soil science.” If someone admires a Flowering Dogwood in a climate more temperate than MDI’s, for example, it’s not necessary to try to plant the same tree on the island; a similar visual effect can be achieved by planting a Crabapple or a Hawthorne, trees hardier to this climate. Still, she acknowledges that for those who work with homeowners, this process of filtering is often easier said than done.

Bob Tooley, “The Ultimate Tree Expert,” who has worked in MDI’s green industry for more than 40 years, sees the issues surrounding some of the island’s failed landscaping endeavors as deeper than a matter of ecological knowledge. An insect pathologist by trade, Tooley has turned his diagnostician’s eye to the community, deeming local landscape projects evidence of a changing ethos.

“I go back a few generations,” he explains, in reference to his work on different estates. “On some of these properties I’m third generation, and I’ve seen many of these estates change hands. I’ve watched old money go and new money come in, and we’ve seen a major attitude change in the property owners. In the old days, we took care of it, we managed it, we owned it. And now people are protective of their properties. I worked on the old Browning estate, and they put money into it because they knew that’s how you keep them going. Now people want to cut costs. These estates are no longer resorts, they’re investments. The whole Bar Harbor scene has changed dramatically. I left the industry and went into law enforcement for 14 years. After that hiatus - I came back full time and this whole place had changed. It’s all about the dollar. That’s the attitude now. ‘How can we advertise the dollar value of the place?’ The Rockefellers didn’t care.”

But Tooley, turning his focus from insect behavior to that of the island’s residents, knows there’s not only one direction in which to point the finger. When it comes to environmental hazards, blame no more ends with the newly moneyed than it does with insects. There is an ecosystem at work, made up of myriad, interrelated components, and it’s as much the industry’s reaction to its clientele as it is the clientele generating the problems.

“New money is too hectic, too high speed, too ‘I want it tomorrow,’“ says Tooley. “These people want it all done in their way, in their time. And that’s why 90% of landscape projects fail, because they surround themselves with ‘yes’ people.”

Regarded as the island’s horticultural watchdog, Tooley could be referencing any number of “failed” landscaping endeavors he’s witnessed, but in recent years there have been a few particularly well-publicized examples. There was the transplant of a 60-year-old apple tree from a location off the island to MDI, the transport of which blocked the bridge to MDI for three hours one day in June, particularly angering those trying to get onto the island for work. That the client responsible for this folly was hugely oblivious to the needs of locals is only part of the problem. The larger part, according to Tooley, was that the tree was transplanted in the middle of bore season rather than in fall when it was dormant, and spent the remainder of the summer on intravenous cocktails of insecticides and fertilizers. Even more dramatic, is the story of a landscape installed in the Boothbay area in “the eleventh hour.” The plants all came from Maryland and hadn’t had time to acclimatize to cooler weather before winter hit. “So you put in a quarter million into a landscape project, and lose it all,” he says.

Still, he won’t lay the blame entirely on the consumer. The “yes” people, according to him, are a huge part of the problem, and there are quite a few of them around. In some instances they are industry professionals who might be very knowledgeable, but who are reluctant to disagree with their clients. “When the customer says ‘I want the hanging gardens of Babylon on my property’, the landscape architect says, ‘I can do it.’“ But perhaps more dangerous, and certainly more rampant, is the landscaper who says “yes” simply because he doesn’t know any better.

“The demand for the industry is growing faster than the industry can accommodate, and the sciences are being violated,” says Tooley. “And the problem is that it’s an entry level business. Anyone with a shovel and a pick-up truck can put “landscaper” on their door. This is something that’s eventually going to have to be addressed.”

This problem isn’t helped any by the contracting practice of making money on employees’ labor. An employee of the average landscaping outfit will make between $9 and $13 an hour, while the owner charges the client anywhere from $26 to $36 an hour for that same employee’s labor. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, if he goes out on his own, he can probably double his hourly rate, a very attractive prospect in an economy in which winter work is hard to come by. Of course, he is now unsupervised, and his knowledge might be limited.

High demand has affected not only the labor force, but has also had implications on the nursery stock brought in. “Originally, people might have bought two or three trees a year and local suppliers could keep up with it,” Tooley explains. “But landscaping has changed over the years. Landscapers order trees from a broker. They say, ‘I need 50 cedar trees.’ Chances are those trees aren’t coming from the same supplier. Five might be from North Dakota and don’t do so good, the few from Michigan are OK, some are from Southern New England, and maybe some are from Kansas or Indiana.” Each of these trees will require different amounts of irrigation, and some, large amounts of fertilizer or maintenance, possibly harmful to groundwater, in order to survive.

Even more pressing is the issue of contamination. Some stock arrives with plant diseases or insect infestations, especially problematic if installed by a landscaper who is unknowledgeable about the issue, which, according to Tooley, is very common. “I can take fifteen landscapers or architects out and show them 115 insects, and they won’t know one of them,” he says. Insect populations can be particularly dangerous to islands and peninsulas, because, while a population contains itself to one small area for four or five years, it eventually outgrows its habitat, and finding itself under population pressure, will go into a foraging period, looking for more food once it’s devastated an area. On an island, it’s only a matter of time before the population hits the coastline, at which point it turns back on itself and hits those same trees again.

As it stands now, there is a Spruce Bud Worm epidemic between Jackson Laboratory and the hospital. Though it has been confined to that area, the Spruce Bud Worm, a native insect, is particularly dangerous to Acadia. “If that insect gets into the park,” says Tooley, “it will kill every evergreen in there before they can do anything about it, because if the insect is indigenous they won’t touch it. The same insect infested Little Cranberry Island a few years back, and before they figured out how to handle it, half the trees were gone.”

On a Bar Harbor property, a landscaper recently planted cedar hedges infested with Cedar Leaf Miner, failing to identify the insect. The pest has since spread to neighboring properties, infesting their trees and hedges. “In ten years there’s not going to be a cedar left,” says Tooley. “This is how Dutch Elm disease and all the other diseases spread. The problems were misidentified and misdiagnosed, the trees were fed, and so the insects were fed with them.”

“A client asked me, ‘Why do I have all these problems?’“ he laughs. “I said, ‘Because you bought and paid for every one of them.’”

While this might be true, area landscapers will not pin the blame on wealthy homeowners and summer residents alone. Both Gillis and Stack testify that there are in fact many moneyed consumers out there who have beautiful native installations around their houses, Gillis explaining that some even want their landscape one hundred percent native, and want planting “heeled into” what was there before. “In some cases we actually save materials during the construction project, but it takes a client who is really committed to want to recycle.” Jeff Dutra, owner of Islandscaping, a nursery and landscaping business that employs about 24 workers during the season, claims his customers tend to be very conscientious, adding, however, that the more he contracts for architects, the less he actually deals with property owners.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s not only wealthy residents who make bad choices, it’s simply that when they do, their budgets are such that they can implement construction at a much faster rate, and so potentially cause damage more quickly. Gillis actually suggests that people doing their own gardening might even cause more problems, since some are less knowledgeable than those in the trade. Stack tends to agree. “So many homeowners think, ‘I can do this,’“ she says, “because they see something on a program or a magazine. But our magazines and our programs are national, and gardening is a very local thing. The science community becomes aware of problems long before the general population,” she continues. “I doubt, for example, many people would see lupine as invasive. It’s difficult with plants that are pretty. I think people are less likely to perceive them as negative.”

Consumers, professionals and knowledge base aside, what makes ornamental horticulture an even riskier pastime at this point is the lack of infrastructure when it comes to dealing with these issues. States like Vermont have implemented regulations with regard to invasive terrestrial plant species, while, to date, Maine has only issued laws concerning invasive aquatic plants. “We are likely to see regulation of landscape species in the industry within the next few years,” says Stack. “But we’re never going to get rid of invasive plants and animals that are here. The barn door is already open, so part of the issue is trying to manage what’s already there.”

While Acadia National Park has managed the Purple Loosestrife invasion with great success, there are issues besides invasive species that are of concern to Mount Desert Island. Gillis’ primary preoccupation is with the ordinances dealing with the island’s storm water drainage. Designed for 25 year storms, he feels strongly that they need to be reworked to account for climate change, especially given that the island’s had five 50 year and a couple 100 year storms in the recent past.

Referring to the incidence of Cedar Leaf Miner, Tooley says, “It’s a good example of how one person’s landscaping threatens others, and raises a legal question: does a customer have a right to bring in contaminated material, and does a landscaper have a right to put it in. It’s frustrating when you’re dealing with the public. They think, ‘I can buy someone who can manage this problem.’ The island should have someone monitoring this sort of thing, but there’s not a single biological plan.”

Until there are plans in place, responsible landscaping will need to take place at the initiative of those who, either as consumers or professionals, participate in it. Fortunately, there are already a few green industry professionals working toward change. This summer, an area gardener who chooses to remain anonymous was moved to photocopy Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent piece, “Turf War,” which addresses the environmental damage reaped by lawn maintenance (The New Yorker, July 21, 2008), and distribute it to clients. Having worked on MDI for 20 years, he has seen the damage that the use of lawn chemicals can cause. He and his employer are so vehement about the use of lawn chemicals, they will not work at homes if they see the properties have been sprayed with pesticides. He has distributed the article to clients in hope that it gives them a “little jolt or some awareness” of the dangers of chemical use.

“It occurred to me that we can convert these people and reach a tipping point only if it becomes trendy,” he explains. Because it is such an esteemed publication within his clients’ circles, The New Yorker article, he feels, has the power to achieve this. For the most part he and his employer have merely tried to wean their clients from chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but in some instances they’ve tried more drastic conversions, suggesting to their clients that they allow their lawns to go wild, to grow into meadows into which paths can be mown. It seems that with his idea of making a trend of “going wild,” he is on to something.

It would seem that it’s time to recall Beatrix Farrand and her crowd, and to allow the concept of the naturalesque to reign again on MDI. Heeding Farrand’s mentor, Charles Sprague Sargent’sadvice, we should strive to “make the plan fit the ground, and not twist the ground to fit a plan.” The indigenous should abound once again, though not only in the remote corners of the garden as was fashionable in the early 20th century. We should mimic nature, not only in its design, but in its flexibility, as we feed the art of ornamental horticulture through the sieve of science.

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